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The Processes of Politicizing Islam in Kyrgyzstan: Impact on the 2020 Parliamentary Elections

“The sphere of religion, which a priori should be separated from politics, has become a factor determining political processes in the country and is even used as a tool to achieve political goals,” mentioned political scientist Arsen Usenov, in an article written specifically for CABAR.asia.

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Increased activation of the activities of religious servants, as well as the Islamic rhetoric of political figures during the pre-election period, has become traditional in the republic.

The processes of religious revival and re-Islamization in the Kyrgyz Republic are currently becoming active factors in the political consciousness of the country’s population, most of whom are Muslims. According to statistics, based on the number of mosques per capita, Kyrgyzstan today is the most religious country in Central Asia, where there is also a high level of penetration of religious foundations and centers funded from outside.

Increased activation of the activities of religious servants, as well as the Islamic rhetoric of political figures during the pre-election period, has become traditional in the republic. The facts of using religion in order to improve the image of politicians were actively manifested in the 2015 parliamentary elections and the 2017 presidential elections, thus, the religious factor in the scheduled parliamentary elections in 2020 also takes place, for which there are many reasons arising from both past experience and present social and political problems of the state.

Religious situation in Kyrgyzstan: politicization of Islam and religiosity of politicians. Why is the role of religion growing in Kyrgyzstan?

The growth of religious consciousness among the Muslims of Kyrgyzstan began actively from the moment of gaining independence. From the very beginning of its sovereign existence, the state adhered to a liberal approach towards the religious sector, proceeding from the declared principle of democratic development, which was further promoted by the informal status of the republic – an “island of democracy” in Central Asia. Thus, unlike other post-Soviet republics, Kyrgyzstan had more space and freedom to found and develop Islamic religious organizations, including various foundations and centers brought in from the countries of the Middle East, Turkey, Pakistan and other Muslim states. Together with internal (ideological, socio-political, economic) factors, the active influence of exogenous factors became the basis for the formation of polymorphic Islam in the country, in which there are both a moderate Hanafi madhhab and more rigid streams, including those with Salafi roots.

In Kyrgyzstan, the only post-Soviet country, the activities of the religious organization Tabligh Jamaat are not prohibited. Initiatives to ban this organization started in 2009, but they were rejected. It is believed that the activities of this organization in the republic are apolitical, therefore they are not dangerous. Mufti of Kyrgyzstan Maksat azhy Toktomushev, who is considered one of the leaders of the Tabligans in the country, completely denies the existence of such an organization in Kyrgyzstan, and the name Tablig Jamaat, as he notes, means a call to Islam through the Davaats.[1] It should be noted that the religious organization Tabligh Jamaat is not registered in Kyrgyzstan.

Despite the declared indifference towards politics, there are facts of hidden lobbying by members of the organization of religious draft bills. The most famous of them are questions about the opening of prayer rooms (namazkhana) in the Jogorku Kenesh (parliament), as well as about the allocation of additional time for deputies for juma-namaz. The latest bill was rejected by parliament in 2016, which caused discontent among some members of the ummah (religious community – ed.). Then, the mufti M. Toktomushev and the head of the Ulema Council of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan (SBMK) A. Narmatov were given official warnings about the inadmissibility of the interference of religion in politics.[2]

In general, the religious situation in Kyrgyzstan relative to other countries in the region is distinguished by the diversity and breadth of the presence of Islamic organizations. Today, there are 2,910 Islamic organizations in Kyrgyzstan, including 2,669 mosques and 125 madrassas. For comparison, in 1991 there were only 39 mosques in the country.[3] Thus, over thirty years, the number of mosques in Kyrgyzstan has grown more than 70 (!) times. More than 400 mosques in the country were built with the support of Arab foundations, including the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), headed by Said Bayumi,[4] who is also the head of the Assanabil Foundation.

In recent years, there has been a noticeable activation of Kuwaiti funds, in particular, Al-Salam, Al-Safa and Assanabil. For example, the As-Salam foundation is engaged in the construction of mosques, helping single mothers, building houses and providing drinking water in villages. In 2019, the As-Safa foundation built an entire residential town for low-income families in Batken region. Assanabil Foundation (Kuwait) sponsored 70% of the cost of reconstruction of the central mosque in Kara-Kul city.[5] In addition, these organizations are also involved in the construction of secular institutions. Thus, the Assanabil Foundation has built 45 schools[6] and 33 medical clinics[7] in Kyrgyzstan.

The implementation by foreign religious foundations of essentially social projects of the state undermines the legitimacy of the authorities, generates skepticism of the population towards secular power and, conversely, increases trust in Islamic foundations and, in general, in the presence of the Islamic principle in politics.

Meanwhile, in Kyrgyzstan, there are processes of increasing interest and involvement of the Muslim society or individual groups of this community in political processes, as well as the use of Islam to achieve specific political goals. Thus, over the past ten years, religious ministers and public figures with Islamic rhetoric have been actively gaining popularity in the country.

One of the reasons for the politicization of religion is the search for justice

The increase in the electorate’s demand for religiosity in political preferences is dictated both by an increase in the religiosity of the population, and by dissatisfaction with state policy and, in general, distrust of political institutions by a part of Muslim society. In this regard, the religiosity of political figures in Kyrgyzstan is gradually becoming a kind of marker of “justice and honesty” for religious voters.

According to the studies of a number of experts from Kyrgyzstan, the processes of Islamization and the change under its influence in the worldview and behavior of people are gradually changing the overall system of social relations in Kyrgyzstan towards its religiosity, which ultimately lays the foundations for the use of Islam in politics. Thus, the population, respectively, and the electorate, is becoming more sensitive to Islamic slogans.[8]

The main reasons for the politicization of Islam in Kyrgyzstan are:
  • The crisis of traditional culture and the absence of national ideology, which leads to the search for new forms of social organization;
  • Low level of religious education and inability of the religious leaders to limit the boundaries of religion and politics;
  • The impact of external religious factors;
  • Corruption of the state and dysfunction of the political system, which is not capable of giving adequate solutions at the end, which again changes the electorate’s preferences to alternative ones, including religious managers.

Religion as a subject of politics in Kyrgyzstan and a political resource

Religion in Kyrgyzstan has long become an instrument and subject of politics, which can be supported with many examples. Religious servants and representatives of the ummah often interfere in political processes in Kyrgyzstan, and Islamic values ​​become the subject of heated debate in society and even are brought to the parliament. In fact, there is a clash of secular, democratic values ​​with Islamic, religious ones in the republic. In this regard, an example of the discussion in 2011 in the Jogorku Kenesh (JK) of the issue of granting deputies a two-hour break to go to the mosque in order to perform Friday prayer is indicative. Then there was a conflict between civil activist Dinara Oshurakhunova and the deputy Tursunbay Bakir uulu, who actively uses Islamic themes.[9]

Islamic rhetoric and demonstration of adherence to religious values ​​are specific to Kyrgyzstan, in particular, the use of Islamic values ​​by politicians is noticeable to maintain their image and support the religious electorate.

Tursunbay Bakir uulu – deputy of the 5th convocation of the JK became one of the only deputies who took the oath not on the Constitution, but on the Koran. On his initiative, prayer rooms for Muslims (namazkanas) were opened within the walls of parliament in 2014, which became the reason for condemnation from representatives of civil society, who considered this a violation of the secular status of the state and an infringement of the rights of other confessions. No less memorable was the ex-parliamentarian’s initiative to declare Friday a day off, which did not find the support of the majority of parliamentarians.[10]

Namazkana (prayer room) in the Jogorku Kenesh.

In 2014, the words of the deputy Torobay Zulpukarov received a special resonance, who stated that “school principals who forbid schoolgirls to wear hijabs should be imprisoned”.[11] This is how the deputy reacted to complaints that in some schools, girls in hijabs are not allowed to attend classes.

No less discussed was around the phrase of the country’s President Sooronbay Jeenbekov at the opening of the Central Mosque in Bishkek with the participation of Turkish President Recep Erdogan, where he noted: “There are more mosques in Kyrgyzstan than schools. This is a good indicator. Some say there are more mosques than schools. The more mosques, the more conscientious children will become. The more madrasahs, the more our conscientious young people will become”.[12] In society, this statement was considered religious, and some even compared it with a similar statement by ex-President Almazbek Atambayev, who held less religious views and called for the construction of schools first of all.[13]

The last near-religious event took place within the walls of the Jogorku Kenesh in April 2020. The question of the deputy Irina Karamushkina, why they did not check and put on the observation the citizens who arrived from Saudi Arabia who were the first to bring the coronavirus into the country, a number of the deputies perceived as offending the religious feelings of citizens. Thus, the deputy Altynbek Sulaimanov noted that this disease does not look at nationality and religion and urged not to interfere with politics in religion: “… The Creator is one, whatever our religions are. Let’s be careful about the fact that it came from umra … Sooner or later the virus would have come to us … It is wrong to raise the issue of religion and confuse it with politics,” Sulaimanov mentioned.[14]

Akjoltoy Tukunov. Leader of the public organization “Balykchy Yntymagy”

It has become a popular method of campaigning to show one’s religiosity, and even more so to build a future policy based on Islamic values. As an example, we can cite the interview of a public figure, leader of the Balykchy Yntymagy association Akzholtoy Tukunov on the Maral FM radio. There he talks about the intentions of the social movement to unite with one of the political parties and get into parliament. During the interview, A. Tukunov repeatedly declares that they (members of the Balykchy Yntymagy movement) are religious and believers in God. Among his future plans, A. Tukunov noted: “to return legally all gold deposits to the state; to write the necessary laws at the request of the people; work fruitfully and become president in the long term; destroy the stereotypes that only financially wealthy people can come to power”.[15] In addition, A. Tukunov noted that he sees the death penalty as the only way to fight corruption.[16] There are more than 5 thousand people in the social movement of Akzholtoy Tukunov. He became famous in the media after organizing a rally in 2019 against the development of uranium in the Tash-Bulak deposit.[17]

Among other features of the religiosity of politics, one can note the fact that the annual all-Muslim prayer on the occasion of Orozo and Kurman Ait is held in the city center – in the old square – with the participation of high-ranking representatives of the country, often the head of state.


Moreover, politicians use a way to improve their image through financial sponsorship of the construction and repair of mosques. Thus, ex-president A. Atambaev allocated his site for the construction of a mosque in memory of the victims of the April 7 events;[18] the mayor of Kara-Kul Ilyaz Yerkeev became one of the sponsors of the reconstruction of the central mosque of the city, allocating 30% of its cost from his own funds;[19] the family of the former Deputy of the Customs Service of the Kyrgyz Republic Raimbek Matraimov is building the largest mosque in the city of Kara-Suu.[20]

Mosque under construction in Kara-Suu

Thus, the religious situation in Kyrgyzstan clearly falls under the definition of the politicization of Islam. The sphere of religion, which a priori should be separated from politics, has become a factor determining political processes in the country and is even used as a tool for achieving political goals.

Religious leaders are active participants in campaigning (agitation)

Over the past ten years, the participation of religious leaders in election campaigns has increased in the country, despite the legal ban. The most memorable event in this regard is the participation in the 2015 parliamentary elections of the political party Uluu Kyrgyzstan, which openly admitted that the majority of party members are religious people (adhere to religious values). In addition, one could observe banners depicting party members and religious leader Chubak azhy Zhalilov.[21]

In 2017, during the pre-election campaign of two leading presidential candidates, Omurbek Babanov and Sooronbay Jeenbekov, there were cases of involving religious leaders to campaign for candidates. In the first case, the ex-mufti of Kyrgyzstan and the imam of one of the local mosques in the south of the country, Sadyk Kary Kamalov, were recruited for campaigning. Around the same period, the previously mentioned religious figure, also ex-mufti Chubak azhy Zhalilov, was noticed in the propaganda campaign of S. Jeenbekov.

Banner depicting Chubak azhy Zhalilov at the 2015 parliamentary elections

In turn, mosques in Kyrgyzstan become centers of soft agitation in favor of their sponsors. For example, the servants of the mosque in their sermons can give bata (blessing) to those who built or helped the mosque in any matter. The last such case was in the central mosque in Osh city. During the Friday sermon, the mosque imam blessed the sponsors of the mosque, including the family of the singer Samara Karimova, who had previously stated that she was running for deputies of the Osh city kenesh.[22]

Meanwhile, experts are already predicting that the upcoming parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan and the behavior of the electorate will undoubtedly be influenced by religious factors. So, the theologian, director of the analytical center “Religion, Law and Politics” Kadyr Malikov notes that in the upcoming elections there will be not direct use, but a veiled use of Islamic slogans: “… politicians will begin to emphasize their religiosity during the elections. Such religiosity is called situational. In addition, there is a certain syndrome of fatigue from politicians and parties in society. Voters will look at personalities, or rather, at their qualities. Including such quality as religiosity will be taken into account by the electorate … ”.[23]

Thus, Kyrgyzstan has both the experience and the potential to use the religious resource in the upcoming parliamentary elections. In the context of the growing religiosity of the population and the politicization of Islam in Kyrgyzstan, operating with the religious feelings of Muslims may not be of secondary importance during the pre-election campaign. In addition, the electorate’s preference for religious candidates is growing due to skepticism and frustration towards the secular state, which is undermined by the high level of distrust of the population towards state institutions.

This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.

[1] Maksat Toktomushev: “Not only angels work in the muftiate” (10.02.2014) // URL: https://www.gezitter.org/society/27607_maksat_toktomushev__v_muftiyate_rabotayut_ne_odni_angelyi/

[2] Atambaev spoke on the draft law on juma namaz and the scandal around it (10.06.2016) // URL: https://ru.sputnik.kg/politics/20160610/1026379619.html

[3] How has the number of mosques and churches changed in Kyrgyzstan since 1991? Infographics (10/22/2020) // URL: https://elgezit.kg/2019/10/22/kak-izmenilos-kolichestvo-mechetej-i-tserkvej-v-kyrgyzstane-posle-1991-goda-infografika/

[4] Esenamanova N. Islamic landmarks of Kyrgyzstan: the role of foreign religious movements // Central Asia and the Caucasus. – 2015. – No. 3-4. – S. 221.

[5] Usenov A. M. The role of external factors in the formation of the religious situation in Kyrgyzstan // Bulletin of the KRSU. – 2019. – No. 11. – S. 167.

[6] Which schools in the Kyrgyz Republic were built by Muslim organizations (09/14/2019) // URL: http://prevention.kg/?p=4862

[7] In two years, the Assanabil Foundation has built 33 medical centers in Kyrgyzstan (31.10.2018) // URL: https://24.kg/biznes_info/100241_zadva_goda_fond_assanabil_postroil_33medpunkta_vkyirgyizstane/

[8] Problems of politicization and radicalization of Islam as a threat to the national security of Kyrgyzstan and ways to neutralize it / Ed. A. L. Salieva. – Bishkek, 2019 .– P. 238.

[9] Is Tursunbai Bakir uulu in fact “uulu”? (13.01.2011) // URL: https://vesti.kg/politika/item/3081-tursunbay-bakir-uulu-ne-takoy-uzh-i-uluu?.html

[10] Tursunbai Bakir uulu again proposes to declare Friday a day off (06/02/2015) // URL: https://24.kg/parlament/13595_tursunbay_bakir_uulu_opyat_predlagaet_obyyavit_pyatnitsu_vyihodnyim_dnem/

[11] Deputy Torobay Zulpukarov suggested imprisoning school principals who prohibit schoolgirls from wearing Muslim clothes (04.09.2014) // URL: https://www.gezitter.org/society/32925_deputat_torobay_zulpukarov_predlojil_sajat_v_tyurmu_shkoluschi_muschu_m_v_tyurmu_direktorov

[12] “There are more mosques than schools, which is a good indicator.” Did the president say these words (09/06/2018) // URL: https://kaktus.media/doc/379360_mechetey_bolshe_chem_shkol_eto_horoshiy_pokazatel._govoril_li_prezident_eti_slova.html

[13] The President of Kyrgyzstan urged to build schools in villages, and then mosques (28.08.2017) // URL: http://kabar.kg/news/prezident-kyrgyzstana-prizval-stroit-v-selakh-shkolu-a- potom-uzhe-mechet /

[14] An interreligious scandal almost erupted in the Jogorku Kenesh (04/30/2020) // URL: https://kaktus.media/doc/412053_v_jogorky_keneshe_chyt_ne_voznik_mejreligioznyy_skandal.html

[15] Tukunov: We went into politics to dispel the stereotype that only the rich can come to politics (video) (19.09.2019) // URL: https://maralfm.kg/archives/379688

[16] Tukunov: We went into politics to dispel the stereotype that only the rich can come to politics (video) (19.09.2019) // URL: https://maralfm.kg/archives/379688

[17] Local residents rally at the Tash-Bulak uranium deposit (04.22.2019) // URL: https://24.kg/obschestvo/115567_nauranovom_mestorojdenii_tash-bulak_mitinguyut_mestnyie_jiteli/

[18] Almazbek Atambayev opens a mosque in Bishkek. He gave his site for construction (04/04/2019) // URL: https://kaktus.media/doc/389367_almazbek_atambaev_otkryvaet_mechet_v_bishkeke._on_otdal_pod_stroitelstvo_svoy_ychastok.html

[19] The Mayor of Kara-Kul allocated 10 million for the construction of the largest mosque in the city (08.10.2019). URL: https://kaktus.media/doc/399083_mer_kara_kylia_ vydelil_10_mln_na_stroitelstvo_krypneyshey_ mecheti_v_gorode_foto.html

[20] The largest mosque will appear in Kara-Suu. On the initiative of the Matraimov brothers (21.06.2019) // URL: https://24.kg/obschestvo/121406_vkara-suu_poyavitsya_samaya_bolshaya_mechet_poinitsiative_bratev_matraimovyih/

[21] “Uluu Kyrgyzstan” is a political party with a religious bias (09/29/2015) // URL: https://rus.azattyk.org/a/27276484.html

[22] The imam of the Bukhari mosque in Osh campaigned for Samara Karimova during the juma prayer. SBMK response (03/06/2020)//  URL: https://kaktus.media/doc/407456_imam_mecheti_byhari_v_oshe_agitiroval_vo_vremia_jyma_namaza_za_samary_karimovy._otvet_dymk.html

[23] Kadyr Malikov: “Unfortunately, people have not yet learned to determine where there are – just words and where are deeds” (30.01.2020) // URL: http://www.pr.kg/gazeta/number858/3688/

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